Matthew 12:38-50 Part 2

The Scribes, those of the Pharisees who held the special seats of wisdom in Israel, had deceptively approached Jesus demanding a sign from heaven that they could see.  Their goal was to trick Jesus into degrading Himself in front of the crowds of people who were following Him.  If He tried to produce a sign and failed, then the people would believe the Pharisees that He was casting out demons in connection with Beelzeboul.  But if He somehow did produce a heavenly sign, then He would have done so to elicit approval from the Scribes.  And that action would have put the Scribes in the ultimate judging position over the activities of the Messiah!

But, as we said last Lord’s Day, Jesus would not participate in their hypocritical folly.  They themselves were in league with the powers of the air, and, at the same time, they were asking for a sign of the blessing of God upon them!  And that is the zenith of hypocrisy!

So Jesus indicates that their adultery from the Covenant of God had culminated in the bill of divorce.  And He illustrates that by saying this,


“A sign shall not be given to (this generation) except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights….”


First, let’s recognize that Jesus isn’t referring to a special sign that accompanied Jonah – He says that Jonah is the sign!  The sign – of Jonah!  The whole historical event which the one word – Jonah – represents.  It is a sign.

And the entire Jonah event is typical.  And what I mean by that is that this is a type.  And Jesus says, here in verse forty, who the archetype is. 


“…so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” 


So the historical occurrence of the prophet Jonah is the sign to the adulterous generation of Jews.  And he is typical of the Son of Man, who is the archetype.

Now, let me just say here that there is always a very special relationship between the typological entities in Scripture.  And that relationship is a God-given relationship!  In the mind of God, Jonah (and all the prophets) bore a peculiar “sign” or “type” relationship to the Messiah – as did the kings and priests!  And, like I said, that “typology” is in the mind of God.  And since that’s the case, it’s up to us to be very careful not to “force” the type to fit the reality, or force the reality to fit the type!

And Jonah provides us a good example with which to illustrate that, doesn’t he?  Jonah was a very angry man.  He didn’t want to preach to the filthy pagan Gentiles, and he knew that if he did, God would be merciful to them and grant them repentance and forgiveness, and that He would destroy his own nation!  And that’s exactly what happened!  But according to Scripture the sole purpose of Christ coming in the flesh was so that men everywhere – the world – would be saved, and His Father would be glorified.  So, you see, even though Jonah the prophet was a “type” of the coming Messiah, if the typology is “forced’, then mistakes – grievous mistakes – are made, and great violence is done to Scripture!  And great violence is done to the person of God’s Son!

But down through the centuries and millennia since Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, great violence has been done to Scripture and to the Person of Christ – both in trying to force the types, as we’ve just had illustrated, and in attempting to disprove, or minimalize, or spiritualize Jonah’s ordeal.

Science, for example, says that this is somebody’s fertile imagination, because there isn’t a fish alive that can swallow a man whole without tearing him up first; and because no man could live three days and three nights in the bowels of an animal without suffocating or being digested!  Science, of course, will not believe that God can operate His creation in whatever way He chooses.  All the sea creatures – and even the sea itself – already do what they’re made to do.  That’s complete obedience!  So it’s certainly not a giant leap of blind faith to believe, as the prophecy of Jonah says, that God spoke to the creature and it did what He said!

Modernists, on the other hand, would say that it really doesn’t matter!  What matters is that there is this really fine story here from which can come many fine lessons and morals for people.  And if all people could learn these lessons taught here, then we could all grow together!

You could probably come up with as many moral lessons from the prophecy of Jonah as I could.  Some I thought of – “don’t run away from your responsibilities.  Life is a cycle, and what goes around comes around; so you’re going to be brought back to them anyway, so you might as well do your responsibilities well the first time!”  Or, “Jonah became angry at his circumstances, but his anger was really a worthless emotion.  It did nothing for his life except maybe make it worse.  So if all of us could see how worthless Jonah’s anger really was, maybe we could all do the same when we find ourselves angry!”  Or maybe we could take one from the Ninevites, for instance, like, “This is an example of what a community can do when it pulls together in a single direction!”  Or one for the animal rights crowd, “Let’s stop the killing of the sea creatures – maybe one of them could save your life some day!”

You get the picture – that’s the modernist’s approach to the miracles and mighty deeds of God in Scripture.

And then, there are those who see allegory and symbolism in all of Scripture.  And these are the ones who are interested only in the “inner man.”  The story in the Scripture, real or not, has value in its “spiritual” application!  For example, Jonah’s being thrown over the side of the boat into this terrible storm in the Mediterranean Sea, and the billowing waves crashing over him so that he went all the way to the bottom; and then the sea creature swallowing him – all those things are allegories to teach us the spiritual strength needed when life comes crashing in on us and we find ourselves on the bottom!  And we feel like we’re being “swallowed alive.”  See the parallel, allegorical meaning there?

To these who see Scripture this way, everything is for the inner man.  Reality is in the heart, and as a result, the Church suffers and the Kingdom suffers, and the world suffers.  You see, if the Kingdom of God is in men’s hearts, then there’s no absolute truth in history, in space and time, in the physical world!  The heart is all that matters!  So the world is of little consequence; the Church is important only for certain reasons; and the rule of Christ over the nations and institutions of the earth is only problematic theologically – because the Kingdom is in the heart.  So to these, all of Scripture is interpreted allegorically, because, in that way, it can be applied directly to spiritual issues of the inner man.

Now, there are a number of other ways, some of them a great deal more subtle, that men approach the prophecy of Jonah (or any other portion of Scripture, for that matter); but those three are enough for us to see a little of the diversity of men’s folly.

But Christians must be guided by this:  we do not determine how Scripture is to be approached.  Scripture does.  It is the divine Word of God, written by humans.  And in all of its great variety it bears the mark of its Author.  And its Author is to be taken seriously – that He had a purpose in this event, and in inspiring the event to be written.  Jonah is a real, historical event, and the Lord Jesus Christ verifies the historicity of it by mentioning that Jonah was actually in the bowels of the sea monster for three days and three nights!  Otherwise he could not have been a type of the historical Jesus – the Son of Man.

So this event isn’t the result of creative imagination, you see.  And it isn’t mythology.  And it isn’t an allegory of an inner spiritual journey.  And it isn’t a story – the words of which can be the subject of higher criticism!

And even if Christ had not said that it did happen, it is still God’s Word!  And it has purpose – the purpose of its Author.  And that purpose is an historical one!  The fact that all these things did take place in history determines that the purpose is historical!  And as we review the prophecy, it is with this fact in mind:  that Jesus points to Jonah’s three days and three nights inside a large sea monster, and He relates that, as a sign, to His being in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  That’s the core of the type.  That, and the fact that Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man in connection with the sign of Jonah.  Remember that the Son of Man terminology is used in the Old Testament only in Daniel chapter seven – with reference to cutting off the rebellious Jews and bringing in the Gentile nations – as He receives dominion from His Father!

Now, let’s get a quick review of this little book so that we can fill up our understanding of the typology; because Jesus said, “A greater Jonah is here….”  And remember that this reference to Jonah is a part of the continuing condemnation of Judaism and its leadership.  More about that in a few minutes.

There is every reason to believe that Jonah was in his older years when God told him to go to Nineveh.  Jonah had obviously been a prophet for a long time, having spoken the Word of God on, at least, one previous occasion recorded in Second Kings, which dates him at approximately 750 BC.

On this occasion, God told him to go to Nineveh, whose great wickedness was foul before the holiness of God, and preach against it.  But all the indications in the book show that Jonah knew what would happen when he preached, and that the time was drawing nearer that Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy would come to pass – that Israel’s breaking of the Covenant would result in Israel’s destruction and the Gentiles becoming God’s people!

So he bought a ticket on a boat from Joppa to Tarshish, which is an island off the southern coast of Spain!  That’s in the very opposite direction from Nineveh, which was on the Tigris River bordering Syria and Iraq.  Now, Jonah was a righteous man – a true prophet of God.  And a proper interpretation of the book would hold that he knew he couldn’t flee from God’s presence, since He is omnipresent, but that he hated the thought of his nation’s destruction so much, he was fleeing from the area of God’s prophetic operation!

But anyway, once in the middle of the Mediterranean a storm, a maelstrom, brought by the Hand of God, threatened to destroy the ship.  And it was so bad that the pagan, Phoenician crew was tossing overboard everything that was not attached.  When that didn’t help they began to frantically search for a culprit who had sinned against his god.  And they discovered that it was Jonah, who had fled the command of Yahveh – God of Israel.

And then Jonah volunteered, in order to save the men on the boat, to be thrown overboard, for he knew that God would quiet the storm once he was gone.  And, sure enough, when they threw him over, the storm stopped!  And the entire crew sacrificed to God and made vows.

But the Scripture says that God had already prepared a great sea creature to swallow Jonah.  And once it did, Jonah began to pray inside the bowels of the creature!  And his prayer was one of thanksgiving that God had rescued him from the bottom of the ocean – the deep – where he had already become wrapped up in seaweed!  His language is directly from the Psalms of David where “going down under into the pit” and “being swallowed up in the heart of the waters” is reminiscent of hell (abandonment) and destruction (inundation, the abyss).  But the language says that Jonah looked to God’s Holy Temple for his salvation, indicating that Jonah’s life was centered around the Coming Perfect Sacrifice for sin.

And Scripture says that God then spoke to the creature and it vomited Jonah, after three days and nights, upon dry land.  Apparently it was back in Palestine.  And God commanded Jonah again to go to Nineveh.  And this time he did it.  And he preached what God told him to preach.  And this city, which was so large that it took three days to walk through it, repented at God’s Words through Jonah, and the king and the entire population, including its cattle, fasted from water and food, in sackcloth and ashes and turned from its sin to the Lord!

 And Jonah became very angry and prayed that the Lord would take his life!  After waiting around for forty days and nothing happened, Jonah knew that God’s mercy had caused Him to stay His hand from this city.

But as Jonah is sitting and waiting, God causes a shrub with large leaves to grow up around Jonah to relieve him of his great despair and give him encouragement.  And then God sends a worm to kill the shrub!  And the East wind blew, by the hand of God, to wither it away.  And the Scripture says that Jonah fainted in despair, and he looked compassionately upon the shrub that it had so quickly died away.  And God spoke to him and accused him of unjust anger.  For he was compassionate concerning a shrub which had died, and yet he was angry with God for His compassion for a city with one hundred twenty thousand children and much cattle!

The history of this event ends right here with Jonah not being able to reply.  What could he say?  All he could do was keep silent before God. 

So now let us look to the sign of Jonah and hold fast to the confession of Him Who could say of Himself, “A greater Jonah is here.”

And the “greater Jonah” refers to Himself as “the Son of Man” who will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  But one thing we have to deal with before we get to the essence of this typology is the three days and three nights that Jesus says He’ll be in the earth – i.e. in the grave.

The facts of Scripture are that Jesus was crucified beginning Friday morning, the sixth day.  And He was buried late that afternoon, where He remained through the seventh day.  And He arose early in the morning on the eighth day, or the first day of the week.  So He was in the grave for parts of three days, but only two nights!  But, as we just saw, Jesus says here that He will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights!  Is there an error somewhere?  Did Jonah, the type, present an incorrect sign for the Lord Jesus?  And did Jesus’ Own words disagree with what actually happened?  “God forbid!”

There is an absolute answer for what looks like a dilemma here, but I’m not so sure that we know what it is.  Historians and Theologians are quick to remind us that it was Jewish practice and custom to count any part of a day as a whole twenty-four hour day.  So, with that explanation, Jesus’ burial on Friday and His resurrection on Monday would account for parts of three whole days.  I say that Theologians are quick to jump on that explanation.  Maybe too quickly, because I still don’t think that it explains Jesus’ specific reference to three days and three nights!  In other words, why didn’t He just say three days?

There’s another explanation which accounts for the third night.  Again I’m not so sure that it answers all the questions, but in the Revelation of St. John, great astronomical happenings are seen accompanying the coming of the King and His Kingdom.  And we know from the Gospel accounts that on Friday, the day Christ was crucified, the sun was darkened between twelve and three o’clock in the afternoon.  And it became night.  And that would clearly account for the third nighttime period.  This fits well with the parts of three days of Jewish custom.  And it would correspond to the inundation, the going under, that Jonah experienced when he was thrown overboard in the storm!  But be that as it may, it’s a possible answer to the problem.  What we do know is that no part of Scripture contradicts another – as much as it would seem to do so with some.

Now.  The central issue in Jonah as a type of Christ.  It is very obvious that Jonah is in the same state of mind as is the rest of Israel, in that the Gentile nations are hated for their ungodly lifestyle.  It is Israel, after all, that is the lineal seed of Abraham.  And as much as God prophesied in His Word about the future conversion of the pagans to the Living God, and their reception into the Kingdom of His Anointed King – and all of this as a result of the cutting off of Israel from the Covenant – they still hated the thought of that awful thing ever taking place!

But here is God sending Jonah to prophecy and to begin that very process!  And it’s all connected to the burial and resurrection of the Messiah, which Jesus refers to here in verse forty!  Jonah’s preaching, and the conversion of the Gentile Ninevites, is irrevocably connected to the burial and resurrection of the Messiah!

Now, there are a number of places where we could go in order to see that connection more clearly; but perhaps none as clear as in the Gospel of John, chapter twelve.  This is the answer, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, that Jesus gives to Phillip and Andrew when they told Him, a short time before His crucifixion, that there were certain Greeks who desired to see Jesus.  This is a group of Gentiles, now!  And here’s His answer:


Jesus said, “The time is come that the Son of Man should be glorified.  Truly, Truly, I say unto you, Except the grain of wheat fall into the earth, and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit.  And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.”


As a result of the Gentiles coming to Him, Jesus prophesies His burial and resurrection!  And His purpose for the whole world!

The Gentiles are here connected to the death and the rising up of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Jonah went under for three days and three nights and rose up to preach repentance to the Gentile nations, so Christ went through the inundation of the Cross (and going down into the earth) – to rise up and draw all men unto himself!

As the entire Gentile city of Nineveh repented at the Words of God as delivered by Jonah, so the entire Gentile world would repent at the preaching of Christ!

As the resurrection of Jonah from the deep meant the admittance of Nineveh to the grace of God, so the resurrection of Christ meant the admittance of all the Gentile nations into the grace of God.  See the type!

And as Jonah went through an inundation unto death so that the wall of partition might be broken down for the Ninevites, so the nation of Israel went through inundation and destruction of its natural nationality in order that out of the execution of the covenant law suit, there may arise a new people of God, composed of Jew and Gentile.  And so must the Son of Man – God in Flesh – be buried in the earth like a grain of wheat, that He might bring forth fruit for the whole world.

The prophecy of Jonah was not a myth, or a dream, or an allegory, nor a parable, nor a spiritual experience by the prophet, but a real occurrence in history.  And he was a type of the Son of Man Who came to set the nations free from the bondage of sin.  His resurrection from the heart of the earth is the source of Life for us – our resurrection! 



“Be not conformed to the world order, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” 


Jesus arose that we Gentiles be brought into the covenantal grace of God.  Now prove what is the will of God!  Don’t be conformed to the world order.  Repent at the preaching of Christ.  The Son of Man has arisen so that we Gentiles might have Life!